Town’s Bond Health Discussed
APR 19, 2023
BAR HARBOR—At the Bar Harbor Town Council meeting Tuesday evening, Public Works Directory Bethany Leavitt gave an update on the Higgins Pit Solar Array project. The parcel is 40-acres, owned by the town since 1972, and located in Salisbury Cove. A feasibility study at the site occurred in April 2021. Only a portion of the lot is developable because of the features of the site, wetlands, and brownfields. It had been a dumping area for waste from construction and sludge and hasn’t been used much since the 1970s.
The last presentation about the solar array project was by former sustainability coordinator Laura Berry in December.
The town is the owner, decision maker, proponent, developer, financier, permit holder, and creates the agreements for the project, Leavitt said. The town hired Sundog Solar, which is in charge of engineering procurement, construction, permitting, interconnection agreement and routine equipment maintenance. Versant controls the cost, timeline, and approval to interconnect the project.
The town, she said, continues to move the project forward while managing hurdles. They have confirmed it’s a 1.547 MW DC array, which gives a cost benefit to the town, and that the bond amount is still working (approximately $3.5 million).
The town isn’t in control of all the variables that impact the schedule. Interconnection studies and equipment delivery are examples of things the town isn’t in complete control of. The interconnection process and study is driving the schedule. There’s a system impact study which will tell the town the costs for distribution. If it’s required, a cluster study would be done after the system impact study. Once all the costs are known, the town can finalize the interconnection agreement. The cluster study would move the timeline back 10 months.
Voters approved the project in 2022. A letter by Kenneth Colburn to the Mount Desert Islander states,
“A 2021 feasibility study showed that the site was unsuitable for housing but could support a solar array big enough to power all the electricity needs of Bar Harbor’s municipal buildings, saving the town millions of dollars over the project’s lifetime.”
Councilor Gary Friedmann called the project groundbreaking, a place where the town took a brownfield site, a challenging site, and that was a heavy lift. He thanked Leavitt for going for it.
The project’s completion could be in 2025 or 2026 depending on the above mentioned variables.
BOND FORUM UPDATE AND DISCUSSION
Interim Town Manager and Finance Director Sarah Gilbert referenced the town’s bond advisor’s presentation earlier this month and created a presentation for the Tuesday night meeting to help the council understand what could occur if the school bond’s passed. Joe Cuetara of Moors & Cabot had said, “I see no impact on your bond rating whatsoever.”
The town will be retiring some debt for Agamont Park and Seawall Project, parking meters, public works projects and way-finding services, and Conners Emerson heating, she said. That accounts for $416,000 of debt service that will be retired. That amount is annual and won’t exist in five years.
Any fundraising or commitments would decrease the school’s bond sale. However, nonprofits who wanted to pledge to the project rather than giving payments in lieu of taxes (PILOTs) would have to be categorized in the town’s budget and terminology as pledges and not PILOTs.
Because of retiring debt, differing bond structures, and town valuations it is difficult to determine exactly how much taxes will be impacted, she said, and invited the councilors and public to watch the town’s bond advisor’s presentation on Town Hall Streams.
The town, Gilbert said, currently pays as it goes for general obligation bonds, which is typical for things such as debt service and expenditures. The goal, she said, is to structure those payments with the least burden to taxpayers. That plan would incur about $31 million if there is a level principal payment and sliding interest payment for 25 years at 4% or an approximate $36 million for 25 years at 4% with a level principal and interest payment.
The town could also defer the principal payment for three years, which increases the total interest cost, but makes initial years less burdensome. The total interest payments would be about $34 million at a 4% rate. This is shown below.
Similarly the town could defer principal payments for five years. The total interest payments would be about $36 million at a 4% rate.
If deferred for five years with a level annual principal and interest, it would have about $39 million in interest payments.
During councilor comments, Jill Goldthwait asked for an update on the groundwater issues at the end of Atlantic Avenue and about the bed and breakfast definition. She said the town should be doing something to review that definition before more large projects labelling themselves as bed and breakfasts occur. A member of the Planning Board who was in the audience said that the topic is under active discussion at the Planning Board.
Councilor Erin Cough spoke about how historic homes in Bar Harbor are of great value to the town and to the country. She said it was sad to think that if someone owns these big, beautiful houses that they have to modify them to match the town’s ordinances in a modern way, which makes the buildings lose a bit of their architecture and history.
“I would like to encourage this town to embrace that history that we have and look at maybe paying a little respect and homage to the architects,” she said.
She said she was disappointed that no one is running for the MDI High School Board of Trustees. “We say that schools are important to us. We say that budgets are important to us and yet no one took out papers for that position. I find that somewhat telling,” she said. She added, “We do still need people on the planning board.”
Friedmann talked about cruise ship tender idling at the town pier and hoped that the harbormaster addressed that. He cited town resident Jim O’Connell saying that tenders are often at full throttle at the cruise ship piers on Ocean Properties, which he said increases the toxins released in the air.
TOWN MANAGER SEARCH
Town manager applications are due Wednesday night to the Maine Municipal Association. A designee of that organization will email the applications to councilors on Friday. There will likely be a May 1 meeting for the councilors to spend an hour together and look through the applications and find five or six people to interview. Interviews will likely occur the week of May 15 or 20. Council Chair Valerie Peacock said that she hasn’t heard how many applications there have been.
There was no public comment at the council meeting.
LINKS TO LEARN MORE
Potential Shared Use Path Ideas Presented
An earlier article about grant for pedestrian safety
If Passed, School Construction Bond Would Have No Impact on Town’s Bond Rating
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